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10 Incredible Films that Made Kirk Douglas a Screen Legend

Steve Palace
Kirk Douglas as Spartacus. Getty Images

The films of Kirk Douglas live on even though the Golden Age star has left us at the ripe old age of 103. One of the brightest stars in Hollywood history has gone out. With a career spanning 7 decades, it’s impossible to sum up his life in movies. But picking out some of his best big screen outings sounds like a great idea! Here are 10 performances that helped put Douglas into the Golden Age Hall of Fame.

Spartacus

Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 epic cast Douglas as a feisty Roman slave who rises up against his oppressors. The classic line “I am Spartacus!” is one of the most famous in screen history.

Kirk Douglas Spartacus

Kirk Douglas in ‘Spartacus’, 1960. (Photo by Universal Pictures/Getty Images)

Douglas also defied the American government by hiring screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. The Communist-hunting House of Un-American Activities Committee had blacklisted Trumbo. Douglas wanted him anyway. The rest is history.

The Vikings

In 1956 the dimpled wonder played Einar, a vengeful Viking in this Technicolor adventure directed by Richard Fleischer. Ever the tough guy, Douglas’s character was attacked by a falcon and lost an eye. Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh and Ernest Borgnine co-starred.

Kirk Douglas Vikings

Poster for Richard Fleischer’s 1958 adventure film, ‘The Vikings’, starring, Kirk Douglas (left) and Tony Curtis. (Photo by Movie Poster Image Art/Getty Images)

Douglas was also involved behind the scenes. His production company Bryna (named after his mother) put together both the movie and subsequent TV series Tales of the Vikings (1959).

Paths of Glory

Another Kubrick collaboration, this one in stark black and white. The 1957 film may have been about conflict – namely, World War I – but it had a powerful anti-war message. Based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb, Douglas took the lead role of Colonel Dax.

Kirk Douglas Paths of Glory

Paths Of Glory, poster, Kirk Douglas on poster art, 1957. (Photo by LMPC via Getty Images)

The production was preserved in the US National Film Registry in 1992, after its significance was acknowledged by the Library of Congress.

The Bad and the Beautiful

Douglas was a keen producer, and in 1951 he got the chance to portray a movie mogul in Vincente Minnelli’s 1952 melodrama. Jonathan Shields was a ruthless and alienating presence who was all about getting results, no matter who got hurt.

The Bad and the Beautiful

Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner in The Bad and the Beautiful. (Photo by John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Lana Turner and Walter Pidgeon were just 2 of his co-stars. He received an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor for his magnetic performance.

Lonely are the Brave

As an American icon, it was inevitable that Douglas would play in Westerns. Appropriately for the rule breaker, his character “Jack” Burns was a free spirit looking to evade the trappings of modern society.

Kirk Douglas Lonely are the Brave

Lonely Are The Brave poster, 1962. (Photo by LMPC via Getty Images)

This 1962 drama featured him alongside Gena Rowlands and Walter Matthau, and was directed by David Miller. Back on the payroll was Dalton Trumbo, who signed up under another Douglas company, Joel Productions (named after Kirk’s son). Douglas earned a BAFTA nomination for Best Actor for this role.

Lust for Life

The movie hard man had an artistic side. This was greatly in evidence for 1956’s Lust for Life, about troubled painter Vincent van Gogh. Directed by Vincente Minnelli (with input from George Cukor) it co-starred Anthony Quinn as Gauguin.

Kirk Douglas Lust for Life

Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh from the film ‘Lust For Life’, 1956. (Photo by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images)

It became a special movie for Douglas, who received another Oscar nod for his work, this time as Best Actor. When the star turned 101 a cake was made with sunflowers on it, referencing the artist’s preoccupation with those flowers.

Champion

Another highlight was gritty boxing drama Champion, directed by Mark Robson in 1949. A film noir, it starred Douglas as Midge Kelly, who used his fists and wits to get to the top.

Kirk Douglas

Kirk Douglas in one of his first great films poses in a boxing stance for the film ‘Champion,’ directed by Mark Robson, 1949.  (Photo by Allan Grant/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

He earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination – though Douglas didn’t win any little gold men individually, he did finally receive an Honorary Award from the Academy in 1996. Champion was also celebrated in cake form for the actor’s 101st birthday bash…!

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

The ahead-of-their-time ideas of Jules Verne and the Golden Age of Hollywood combined in this spectacular 1954 odyssey, which cast Douglas as seafarer Ned Land. Land truly met the water when he encountered James Mason’s Captain Nemo and his submarine the Nautilus.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, from top: Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Paul Lukas, Peter Lorre, 1955. (Photo by LMPC via Getty Images)

Richard Fleischer was in the director’s chair, going on to work with Douglas 2 years later for The Vikings. Douglas only had a falcon to battle in that flick. In this one he had to wrangle a giant squid! The mechanical creation ranks among Tinseltown’s definitive monsters.

The Fury

The 1970s saw Douglas take on some intriguing projects, including Brian De Palma’s sci-fi horror movie about psychic powers. The veteran actor played ex-CIA man Peter Sandza, who gets caught up in a dangerous conspiracy fueled by devastating mind power.

Kirk Douglas

Amy Irving and Kirk Douglas on the set of The Fury, based on the novel by John Farris and directed by Brian De Palma. (Photo by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

While Douglas wasn’t associated so much with fantasy genres, The Fury and 1980’s Saturn 3 put his striking looks and talent to work against forces beyond human control.

Ace in the Hole

One of the greatest films showcasing Douglas vs the establishment (actually the establishment media) is Billy Wilder’s film noir Ace In The Hole from 1951. In the star’s extensive gallery of memorable and sometimes unsavory characters, reporter Chuck Tatum surely ranks among the most infamous.

Ace in the Hole

Kirk Douglas films. Ace In The Hole poster, 1951. (Photo by LMPC via Getty Images)

Tatum scandalously interferes with the story of Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), who’s trapped in a cave network. Operating without scruples, Douglas gave it to the audience straight, leaving them no option but to gasp at his appalling onscreen antics. Now that’s acting…!

Related Article: Kirk Douglas Passes Away at 103 – Tributes Pour in from Family and Friends

The films of Kirk Douglas and his body of work is immense and lives on in the annals of Hollywood lore. It’s impossible to only choose 10 great films of his but if we had to narrow it down, these would be it. And just so we’re not kicking ourselves later, honorable mention would certainly go to his role as Doc Holliday of O.K. Corral fame in 1957!

Kirk Douglas Doc Holliday

Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday. (Photo by Mondadori via Getty Images)